Julian Schnabel at UMMA
“Julian Schnabel” presents a comprehensive survey of the work of this iconoclastic New York painter and filmmaker, known for a pictorial language that embraces eccentric materials and radically unconventional techniques. The exhibition, which originated at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut before traveling to the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), will feature artworks from the mid-1970s to the present, including paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
From his first solo exhibition in 1979, Schnabel broke with the prevailing paradigm of Modernism to forge a practice that encompassed figuration, personal narratives, and references to history and mythology. He was among a group of 1980s artists known as Neo-expressionists (a term that he would reject) who wanted to return to painting pre-abstraction, to a renewed exploration of the medium’s emotional and expressive potential.
The exhibition explores Schnabel’s use of found materials, his experimentation with chance operations, and his unconventional and inventive mark-making. Whether dragging a canvas on the ground, allowing a drop cloth to absorb environmental stains, or using printed images as backgrounds for his paintings, Schnabel’s formally and conceptually wide-ranging work is connected through the idea of the palimpsest, a metaphor that speaks to the dense and often mysterious layering of cultural signifiers and imagery that characterize his work.
The show will feature rarely exhibited early works from 1975 onwards, including drawings and studies for Schnabel’s first mature series, the Plate Paintings and Wax Paintings. The plate paintings—large-scale compositions created using broken ceramic plates and other vessels—are perhaps the artist’s most well-known and defining body of work. The exhibition includes his first plate painting, The Patients and the Doctors, from 1978, as well as The Sea, a monumental tableau created in 1981, in which Schnabel used shards of broken Mexican vases to construct an allegory of cultural upheaval and death. Themes of immortality, death, and the passage of time are common in Schnabel’s oeuvre.
In his early wax paintings, Schnabel cut holes into the surface of the canvas and made ridges out of canvas and modeling paste in order to make the paintings look and feel like found objects, as though he were painting on a garage door or a brick wall. Some pieces in the exhibition embody this same rejection of traditional forms and hierarchy, including a work from the artist’s 2001 Big Girl series, inspired by a small painting he found in a Houston thrift shop in 1987; paintings on Kabuki theater backdrops from 1986; and a 2012 goat painting, in which an image of a stuffed goat with a rabbit on its head is transposed onto 19th-century Dufour wallpaper.
Challenging the notion that there is any difference between figurative and abstract painting, Schnabel founded his work on an infinite exploration of the way paint can make a pictorial surface out of anything. He said in 1987, “I don’t think the battle between figuration and abstraction is even an issue. Anything can be a model for painting—a poplar tree, another painting, a smudge of dirt.”
“Julian Schnabel” is on view at UMMA from July 5 to September 27, 2015.
This exhibition was organized by the Brant Foundation Art Study Center. Lead support for UMMA’s installation is provided by Joseph and Annette Allen, the University of Michigan Office of the Provost, the University of Michigan Health System, the Richard and Rosann Noel Endowment Fund, and Retirement Income Solutions.